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It’s such a fine line between stupid, and clever.
- David St. Hubbins, Spinal Tap
Spinal Tap is one of the greatest movies ever made. It defined the mockumentary genre, absolutely capturing the sense of a cultural space – ridiculous metal bands in the 80s. It was well-acted, sensitive, and also the music may have been silly but pretty good. In fact, it was so well done that when the “band” toured, a friend who was a fan ran into people at a concert who didn’t get the joke.
Want to argue with me? Shut up. Look. I just like Spinal Tap.
Being such a fan of the film, I checked out a similar movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, as a friend said it was in much the same vein. Popstar was also a mockumentary, but was released in 2016, targeting more modern pop music (with bits of boybands, the Beastie Boys, and rap thrown in). The movie focuses on one Conner Friel (Andy Samberg) who rose to fame as part of a trio called “The Style Boys,” but being the most charismatic of the group, he ended up solo, leaving one friend traumatized and the other as his DJ. Connor’s meteoric rise becomes a crashing-to-earth potential extinction event through various bad choices, exacerbated by more bad choices.
The film was a bomb, but I found it quite entertaining, disturbingly spot-on, and the musical performances are pretty good. However, there were parts of it that seemed, well, stupid – over the top, vulgar, or dumb. As I watched it my reaction was yes, it was funny, but Spinal Tap it was not.
However, as I watched, I realized that this was a film of a different time. Spinal Tap was funny to sixteen-year old me as I knew that era of music, the stories of drummer disasters, monsters of metal who just kept going, and strange careers. Watching Popstar i started thinking that maybe I didn’t “get it.”
Stupid or clever? A fine line indeed as Mr. St. Hubbins would note. So I tried to view it as best I could through a modern lens – and I’m the kind of person who hears of Maroon Five and wonders what happened to the first four.
Once I did that, my perspective changed – and with it I got a better understanding of media.
The excesses shown in Popstar were excesses that were distinctly modern – stupidity that was in most cases part of our lives. Megastars who gain a great deal of fame very fast and do very stupid and immature things amplified by the news. Oversharing on social media of every detail. Dumb tie-ins using modern technology to do things no one wants but everyone tells you is cool.
A lot of the things I found stupid in the film were there in real life. This was a fascinating realization, as well as more than a bit depressing. Maybe the first four Maroons were in hiding from the dumb world we’d made.
In the end I came to the conclusion that of Popstar’s stupid elements, well over half were completely well-deserved. Tell me you can’t believe a business called Party Wolves with stellar yelp reviews for providing cute wolves for events. There’s a scene taking on Daft Punk/Deadmaus techno-costumes and bands that is hilarious as it is believable. We really do amazingly self-destructive things on social media, especially when famous.
Clever or Stupid? I had to come down on the side of clever. It’s just that it was made in modern times where we have invented some incredible kinds of idiocy.
I did note where there was actual stupidity it was due to the film going from mockumentary to parody. Mockumentaries should adhere to being as real as possible while also exploring the ridiculousness of their subject. Parody has more of a free hand and allows – indeed may require – some excess to point out the ridiculousness of its subject. I consider a mockumentary a sub-form of parody, a more disciplined and sensitive one, and to break out of the form is jarring – as this film does occasionally.
I wish the film had been handled with some more deftness, dare I say “more Spinal Tap like,” but perhaps that was too much of a challenge. The musical and managerial traumas in Spinal Tap were of a different time, one without social media, and embarrassing holographic reconstructions. Perhaps our current times have so much stupidity that it’s harder to handle it cleverly – one needs their cleverness up to eleven as it were.
If there’s a point to all of my intentional rambling it’s that mockumentaries require some careful handling, but also that audience understanding matters. I had to take effort to put myself in the right mindset of Popstar, much as a young person might not “get” Spinal Tap with some thought. Even if Popstar had been handled as well as Spinal Tap (and it is still pretty good) I would have had to make some effort.
Some things just are of their times. Including me. Besides, I’d probably throw my back out trying to do The Donkey Roll.